Tech talk

Here are 3 pieces of Houston startup advice from Capital Factory's emerging tech panel

As a part of its Texas Startup Manifesto, Austin-based Capital Factory came into town to talk about the Houston's ecosystem and advice for tech startups looking to do business in town. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Throughout the year, Austin-based Capital Factory loads up a bus and takes startup founders and tech entrepreneurs around the Lone Star State in order to better connect the dots of innovation within Texas' major metros. The Texas Startup Manifesto bus recently put it in park outside Station Houston and hosted a tech-focused panel at Accenture's innovation hub.

The panel, which was hosted by two deep tech startup founders, asked some important questions about Houston's ecosystem and startup needs to three experts. Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmontics and Diana Liu of Arix Technologies represented the startups, while Allison Sawyer of League of Worthwhile Ventures, Mark Volchec of Las Olas VC, and Brian Richards of Accenture fielded their questions.

The panel started out with the state of Houston's innovation ecosystem — which, of course, was the whole point of the one-day field trip to the Bayou City. The panelists seemed to agree that Houston has things it needs to improve on, but the point is not to try to copy any other market.

"We can't try to be Silicon Valley. We're just simply not," Richards says. "What we have to focus on is what our strengths are."

For instance, Houston has a lot of money within the city, but that hasn't yet translated to a large amount of investments in startups. Even if the city found $1 billion to start investing in companies, Richards says that wouldn't solve everything instantly. Houston has to be able work on the ecosystem as a whole, not just one thing in particular.

"We have so many problems to solve, and we have to solve them in parallel," Richards says. "We have to fix them all at once."

The city's ecosystem aside, the panel weighed in on some of their own advice for tech startups making waves in Houston.

Hire a business-minded leader, like, yesterday.

One of the most crucial aspect for any startup is the team behind the product, and having a diversity of expertise on that team is especially in tech startups, which are usually instigated by a tech-focused founder.

"I think it's really important to have a balanced founding team," Volchec says. "If everyone is tech, I think it's really difficult."

As a venture capitalist and former founder himself, Volchec's biggest critique is that, startups and founders don't start sales early enough. Volchec says he once signed a deal with a company before they even had a product let alone revenue. The key distinguisher for him was that the company already had contracts in place from customers.

Having that person to sell the company is so important, and you need a business-focused person at the helm to do so. For most companies, that's not the tech-minded founder.

"If you're the scientist, why do you even want to be the CEO?" Volchec asks. "The CEO's job is to be out there and selling — to investors, to clients, to employees."

According to the panelists, sooner is better for making that hire.

"if you don't hire a CEO, and you raise enough money, someone will hire a CEO for you, and you might not like that CEO," Volchec says.

Have a free discovery.

In particular, B-to-B companies should have a free trial, so to speak, for their product. It's Sawyer's pet peeve, she says, when startups charge for the discover process. It's strategic to give access to some people within the company your startup is trying to sell to, that way they get hooked and want to get more access for their whole team.

It does make the process a little more challenging, Sawyer says, since it requires a little more upfront funds.

"You do have to raise a little bit more money, but you do get to scale a lot faster," she says.

Corporate venture groups can be more than just investment. 

When looking to scale your product into bigger corporations, a way in is through corporate venturing groups, according to the panelists, even if money isn't the right fit. You're more likely to get a meeting with a venture arm than with the company itself.

"I never took corporate venture money, because they were a little too slow and it was a lot of extra accounting work, Sawyer says. "But I loved working with corporate venture when it comes to pilots. I think they are an underused resource for startups."

It also helps that more and more companies are devoting resources to these groups.

"I'm seeing corporate venture groups all over the place," Sawyer says. "Even if you're not taking their money, they will get you in the door for a pilot."

Overall, big companies are more keen to work with startups of late, says Richards, who hosts C-level execs from big companies on a daily basis in Accenture's Innovation Hub.

"I've never seen [corporations] more motivated than they are right now to be able to think differently on how they are able to engage Houston," he says.

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia